Ashley Johnson

It’s Not Just Hair

My mom loved her hair. She embraced her natural curl pattern long before it was fashionable for black women to declare, I’m going natural. Styling hair is an act, perhaps an art, that involves taming, molding, shaping the unruly. My mom was proud of her untamed, unruly locks.

Description of my mom’s hair:

  1. soft curls
  2. thick waves
  3. sometimes frizzy
  4. hers was a lot like mines.


I was 28 years old in September of 2014, and Mommy called my phone crying. Through sobs, I heard, “Ash. Can you come over? I need help…my hair.”

When I got there, she stood in her kitchen…clinching clumps of her hair in her fists. This was the work of chemotherapy after only two treatments for small cell lung cancer.

One of my sisters walked in fifteen minutes after me. I watched my mom show my sister what she had just shown me, and I realized the gravity of what was happening to my mom’s body—to my mom.

Mommy kept saying, “It’s not the same.”

She was right. Her hair, once soft and luscious, felt brittle. She removed her headband and strands of her hair left with the headband.

“I’m ready to cut it,” she said. “Will you help me?”

I felt the reversal: child becomes parent.

I did my best to braid it. Alternating three sections between my fingers, moving one finger full over the other, and more strands abandoned her head. My tears spilled. My sister handed me the scissors because she couldn’t bring herself to cut the braid off. I did what the oldest does—I took care of it.

After the cut, I washed Mommy’s hair in the kitchen sink. More of her hair stuck to my hands. My sister’s tears rolled down her cheeks and I understood; this was scary. We were watching our mom fall apart—bits of her wrapped around my fingers, others stuck to the stainless-steel sink, tufts washed down the drain, tresses littered the floor. I wanted to pick up every single strand, one by one, and put each piece back in place. But that was not possible.

It will grow back—that was Mommy’s go-to phrase when something went wrong with her hair, or my hair, or either of my sisters’ hair.

“It’ll grow back, Ma,” I said.

The words fell out of mouth. Truthfully, I didn’t know if her hair would grow back. I didn’t know if I believed what I said.

In the following weeks, more hair washed down drains and was left here and there. Mommy texted pictures of hair updates after each chemo and radiation session. In the last selfie, she was completely bald.

Cancer needed treatment. The treatments stole pieces of my mom…more than just hair. The chemical cocktail and blasts of radiation obliterated cells, killed her liveliness, destroyed her self-confidence, replaced her beautiful oddity and her special-brand of cool with the sickly shell of someone I had a hard time recognizing.

My mom died five months after I cut off that brittle braid. I sometimes wonder if my mom would have been happier in her last months without treatment. I wonder if mommy would’ve lived longer if she got to keep her hair.


Ashley Johnson is currently matriculating at the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program. She is the recipient of the 2019 Michael Steinberg Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction. Ashley is an avid reader who most enjoys creative nonfiction, contemporary fiction, and magical realism. She spends her days teaching high school in Silver Spring, Maryland. When not writing or teaching, Ashley enjoys spending time at home with her husband, their two boys, the family dogs, and a good book.